Appreciating Parks

by John Werminski

One day several years ago, I came across a rather small book with a drab brown cover in the Resources Agency library. What caught my eye was the neatly hand-lettered title on the cover:

CALIFORNIA STATE PARK SYSTEM

RECORD OF LAND ACQUISITIONS

REPORT OF INVESTIGATING OFFICER

NEWTON B. DRURY

Inside, as near as I could tell, was a parcel-by-parcel inventory of every piece of park land that had been acquired by the State up to that time. Each page described a separate purchase, and altogether the volume was about two inches thick. The entries spanned more than half a century—between an 1887 expenditure for Coloma’s Marshall Monument and the report’s issue date of 1940.

I was familiar with the inspiring story of our park system’s creation, having read Joe Engbeck’s book on Department of Parks and Recreation history, State Parks of California from 1864 to the Present. But this report clarified for me as never before the full scope of that achievement through its cataloguing of particulars: acreages, purchase costs, funding sources, sellers, donors.

I learned that there were early gifts to the state from the “Landmarks Fund” (William Randolph Hearst, Trustee), in the form of the Sonoma Mission, Monterey’s First Theater, and Fort Ross. There were more donations of land and money from the Save the Redwoods League than I could count. The majority of acquisitions, though, had been made possible by the State Park Bond Act of 1928 and its “matching funds” provision.

There aren’t words to adequately praise that bond act as an investment in California’s future—or its supporters for bequeathing us such a grand gift of parks. It’s a story premised on idealism, generosity, and visionary thinking, one that deserves being shared loud and often with park staff and public alike. Here, however, I want to focus on that story’s economic side. A little number-crunching will show just how great a bargain our early parkland purchases have proved to be.

The table below itemizes what the State of California paid for the “core” land in a number of our parks. Some listings represent multiple land purchases for a park unit, while others represent individual transfers of title. Most of these acquisitions took place in the early- and mid-1930s. I’ve made no attempt to adjust the figures for inflation.

Cost table


Viewed from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, these State expenditures make a compelling case. How much poorer as a people would Californians be today if government officials had opted NOT to acquire the best of the primeval redwoods—including 10,000 acres of Big Basin for as many dollars as it costs to buy a single suburban house at current prices?

What would the Anza-Borrego desert look like now if we hadn’t preserved 325 square miles of it for less than 13 cents an acre? What if we had refused to accept the fern-lined cataracts of Steep Ravine on Mount Tamalpais or the thunder and spray of Burney Falls as they were offered to us—for free?
 

Montage


For as long as there have been parks, there have been arguments advanced for not acquiring them—the removal of land from the tax rolls, the loss of commercial opportunities, the projected park operational costs. Such a stance might seem reasonable enough in a contemporary context, but as soon as one takes a longer view of things, the arguments lose much of their persuasive power. In the late 1800s, for example, some small-scale grazing interests raised a serious objection to the establishment of Yosemite’s backcountry as a national park; today, their case seems spurious at best.

Public servants and park professionals need to constantly keep one eye on that longer view. Even in these tight fiscal times, we need to resist the impulse “to make everything dollarable,” as John Muir put it—parks most of all.

Three generations ago, a majority of Depression-plagued Californians had enough faith in the future to support a new and growing system of state parks. There are six times as many of us today, with open space becoming ever more precious (and expensive) as our numbers swell.

Already, in the Los Angeles region, the amount of available shoreline averages out to less than one-quarter inch per resident. In the redwoods, rangers were surprised by a sudden influx of city-dwellers seeking solace after September 11, 2001. Now as before, we require faith and vision. California must continue to expand and develop its state park system in order to serve the needs of the generations that follow us—whatever those needs might be.

Economically as well as socially, parks are an investment opportunity we can’t afford to decline. Ultimately, the issue becomes a matter of park appreciation, in both senses of the word.

John Werminski
State Park Regional Interpretive Specialist (Retired)
November 12, 2004